Strange Comic Books: Spider-Man “Life in the Mad Dog Ward”

I’ve written before about the classic Spider-Man story “Kraven’s Last Hunt” which originally came out back in 1987.  I think that many people have forgotten that immediately after J.M. DeMatteis’ six part arc concluded, the very next month another storyline ran across all three of the Spider-Man titles.  Appearing in Web of Spider-Man #33, Amazing Spider-Man #295, and Spectacular Spider-Man #133, it was written by Ann Nocenti, penciled by Cynthia Martin, and inked by Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker & Josef Rubinstein, with covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  There wasn’t an overarching title to the story, but I refer to it by the cover copy on Amazing #295, “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Whereas the previous six issues had seen Spider-Man buried alive, Ann Nocenti’s arc featured him getting locked up in an insane asylum!

amazing spiderman 295 cover

Housewife Vicky Gibbs is alone with her thoughts & inner demons.  The already emotionally troubled mother of two has finally decided to leave her husband Frank.  She can no longer stand the fact that he has become involved in the mob, specifically the organization controlled by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.  Before Vicky and her children Jacob and Tanya can leave, though, Frank arrives home.  And soon after, he receives orders from the Kingpin’s right-hand man the Arranger, orders that involve having his wife committed to the Pleasant Valley mental hospital.

Pleasant Valley, which is owned by the Kingpin, is a front.  In cases where there are former associates of Fisk’s or witnesses to his crimes who, for one reason or another, cannot simply be killed, he pulls strings to have them declared mentally unfit and sent to Pleasant Valley.  There they are detained indefinitely and drugged to keep them silent & pacified.  Running the hospital is the Doctor, who in exchange for collaborating with the Kingpin is allowed to engage in unethical medical experiments.  This Doctor also occasionally reprograms certain patients to serve as assassins for the Kingpin.

Elsewhere, Peter Parker is walking about in a daze.  He is recovering from his traumatic encounters with Kraven & Vermin, as well as worrying about more mundane matters such as bills and his relationship with his wife.  After having dinner at his Aunt May’s house, Peter is wandering the streets of Forest Hills.  Suddenly his spider sense goes off as an ambulance rushes by, with Jacob and Tanya futilely chasing after it on foot.  Bumping into Peter, the two children explain that their mother is being sent to Pleasant Valley.  Returning to his apartment, a restless Peter is unable to sleep.  He keeps wondering if there is more to the children’s story than he initially thought.  Slipping into his Spider-Man costume, he heads back to Queens to investigate.

Jacob and Tanya have also gone to Pleasant Valley, having stolen their father’s gun, believing they can rescue their mother.  Frank arrives to stop his children, but all three are soon detained by the hospital’s armed security force.  When the guards move to grab the trio, Spider-Man swings in and knocks out the majority of them.  One, however, sadistically tosses Tanya off the roof of the asylum, and when Spider-Man leaps to catch her, he is shot.  Lying wounded in an alley, the bleeding web-slinger urges Tanya to flee.

amazing spiderman 295 pg 14

Peter regains consciousness in Pleasant Valley, having been patched up by the physicians there.  The cynical staff, who refer to the hospital as “the Mad Dog Ward,” think that Peter is just some nut who only believes he is a superhero.  When the weakened Peter resists, he is quickly drugged & restrained.  Only the Doctor realizes that this new patient is exactly who he claims to be.  He is looking forward to experimenting on Spider-Man’s mind, but first he must complete his conditioning of the Kingpin’s latest assassin, Mad Dog 2020 aka Brainstorm.

Drugged and disoriented, Peter struggles to string his thoughts together coherently.  He befriends Mary, a nurse new to the facility who is already unsettled by what she sees.  Peter gets Mary to let him talk to Vicky, but she is in even more of an anesthetized stupor than he is.  Peter also meets Zero, a very dim but strong & well-intentioned man-child whose greatest wish is to be a genuine superhero.

Peter attempts to rally his fellow patients to revolt.  Unfortunately, everyone is too zonked out on drugs, and the uprising is soon quashed by the staff.  The Doctor realizes that Zero, who he had hoped to program into a future Mad Dog assassin for the Kingpin, has proven non-aggressive, yet at the same time continues to rile up the other patients.  And so the Doctor decides to have Zero lobotomized.  Once Peter begins to become coherent again, he learns of this impending procedure.  Undeterred by his previous failure, Peter attempts to convince Mary to switch the patients’ daily drugs for a placebo.  The nurse is reluctant, fearing that suddenly coming off their medication will make them violent or suicidal, but eventually she decides to go along with the plan.

The next day, the patients begin to come out of their stupor.  We start seeing some rather odd, aggressive behavior from the various inmates, but seemingly nothing too outrageous.  And then THIS happens:

spectacular spiderman 133 pg 11

Yipes!  Whenever I turn the page and see this, I start laughing uncontrollably.  Is that Cynthia Martin channeling Edvard Munch?  In any case, Peter takes advantage of this ruckus to break out of his bonds.  He and Mary free Vicky and Zero from their cells.  However, the Doctor, in addition to being backed up by his security guards, sets loose Brainstorm.  The programmed killer attacks, but fortunately Peter has regained his superhuman strength & reflexes, and he manages to defeat the Mad Dog.

Before the Doctor can make another move, he finds himself with a gun pointed at his head by Frank Gibbs.  After much soul-searching, and having been shamed into action by his children, the mobster has finally decided to leave his life of crime behind and spring his wife.  Using the Doctor as a hostage, Frank, Vicky and Peter are able to make their way out of the Mad Dog Ward.

A day later, Peter returns to Pleasant Valley with Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, hoping to expose the facility’s abusive practices.  Unfortunately, the Kingpin has beaten both them and the authorities to the punch.  The Arranger has called a press conference to announce that an “appalled” Fisk has only just uncovered the unethical behavior at Pleasant Valley, and that the Doctor is now in police custody.  Peter is disgusted that the Kingpin has managed to weasel his way out of trouble yet again, maintaining his façade of a respectable businessman.  On his way out, he passes by Mary, who is leaving to find a better job.  As the story closes, we see Vicky, Frank, Jacob and Tanya driving west, preparing to start a brand new life.

“Life in the Mad Dog Ward” is certainly a strange, unsettling story.  Ann Nocenti has always been a very unconventional writer.  When I first discovered her work, via this story and her run on Daredevil in the late 1980s, I initially found her work off-putting.  At the time I guess I was expecting more conventional superhero stories.  What I got from Nocenti were examinations of the roles women play in society, environmental degradation, corporate corruption, faith & religion, animal rights, crime & punishment, and the psychological motivations that make people into who they are.  This was really heavy, deep material for a teenager, especially as Nocenti certainly did not err on the side of subtlety.  She pulled no punches, espousing her views with bluntness and conviction.

Yet at the same time, when she presented her various antagonists, Nocenti took the time to render them three-dimensional, to delve into what made them tick.  The Kingpin, Typhoid Mary, Bushwacker, and Bullet committed monstrous acts, but Nocenti gave us a look into their heads, to show how from their points of view they each felt they were behaving in a justifiable, rational manner.  She even wrote what was probably one of the most nuanced portrayals of Marvel’s own Devil figure, Mephisto.

In the mid-1990s, I began to have a greater appreciation for Nocenti’s writing, and I really enjoyed the series of stories she did in Marvel Comics Presents with artist Steve Lightle where she delved further into the twisted psyche of her creation Typhoid Mary.  Nowadays, looking back on her work at Marvel, I really am able to grasp just how sophisticated and ahead of her time Nocenti really was, bringing a very unique sensibility to mainstream comic books.  It’s definitely a pleasure to re-read stories such as “Life in the Mad Dog Ward” and look at them from a different, adult perspective, to catch the aspects of them I didn’t pick up on when I was younger.

We see in Vicky Gibbs a woman who feels constrained by the role of wife and mother.  Her husband Frank expects her to placidly accept what he does for a living, even if it is illegal, because it puts food on the table.  Frank believes that as long as he is in the role of breadwinner, Vicky should simply accept her own responsibilities as a traditional housewife.  Obviously Frank is very much in the wrong, dismissing Vicky’s concerns about where the money comes from, and how the anxiety over it has exacerbated her mental illness.  He is equally at fault when he allows the Kingpin’s goons to pack Vicky off to a mental hospital in order to save his own skin.  Yet, as written by Nocenti, we can see how Frank has rationalized all of his decisions.  However, once Vicky is out of the picture, locked away in Pleasant Valley, Frank is forced into the role his wife previously held, caring for their children.  And seeing up close just how miserable Jacob and Tanya are, how much they have come to hate their father, he is finally forced to own up to his mistakes and take action to clean up the terrible mess he has created.

web of spiderman 33 pg 1

Cynthia Martin’s penciling is well suited to this story arc.  She has a very clean line and straightforward style to her storytelling.  It is definitely effective at conveying the stark, dramatic tone of the story.  A more traditional, dynamic Marvel-style type of artwork might not have worked as well.  Martin effectively renders the moody, oppressive sequences in the Mad Dog Ward as well as the more straightforward scenes featuring normal, everyday people.

A while back, in my Thinking About Inking blog post, I wrote about how significant a role the inker / finisher has upon the final look of artwork.  I believe this is demonstrated very well in the three part “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Cynthia Martin’s pencils are inked by a different artist in each issue.  Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker and Josef Rubinstein each bring their unique styles and sensibilities to the finished work.  All three do an excellent job at inking Martin.

Topping it all off, literally, are a trio of surreal, atmospheric covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  They really encapsulate the madness and sense of disconnect from reality that the characters experience throughout Nocenti’s story.

Five years later Ann Nocenti, paired with the art team of Chris Marrinan and Sam DeLaRosa, brought back Zero, Brainstorm, and the not-so-good Doctor.  The interesting, insightful “Return to the Mad Dog Ward” saw print in the adjective-less Spider-Man title issue #s 29-31.  I did a Google search and, according to a couple of web sites, there may be a collected edition of all six issues coming out in a couple of months.  Keep your fingers crossed!

spiderman 29 cover

After an absence of several years, Nocenti recently returned to the comic book biz, writing several titles for DC Comics.  I hope at some point she is also able to do some new work for Marvel.  I can’t help wondering if she has any more stories to tell about her various creations there such as Brainstorm and Zero.  And, yeah, no one quite writes Typhoid Mary as well as Nocenti does.

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One thought on “Strange Comic Books: Spider-Man “Life in the Mad Dog Ward”

  1. This was perhaps the most disconcerting Spidey story I read in my youth. It’s funny, just the other day I was going through some old books I’m eBaying and came across this arc. I hadn’t thought about it in 20+ years. I never realized it was written by Nocenti––who is hands-down one of my favorite comic book scribes, but I usually associate her with Longshot and Daredevil during this era. I pulled the issues and hope to reread the series in its entirety for the first time since its initial release in the next couple weeks. Nice work as always, Ben.

    Liked by 1 person

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